Thursday, March 11, 2004

Chicken Cordon Bleu

This is a true story.

Once upon a time, there was a kosher caterer who made a wonderful dish: chicken and pastrami. He would skilfully stuff pastrami into a chicken breast, fry it in breadcrumbs, and cover it with sauce. Alas, no one wanted to buy this tasty entree, for mere chicken and pastrami was far too humble for his customer’s sophisticated palates. Disappointed, the caterer searched for a solution. He decided to give his beleaguered entree a more glamourous name: chicken cordon bleu. (Luckily, his clientele were unaware that chicken cordon bleu is usually stuffed with ham and cheese.) And now it began to sell!! All wanted a taste of that gourmet delicacy, chicken cordon bleu!! With a stroke of the pen, this chicken was no longer a Yiddish accented immigrant from Brooklyn, but rather an charming French arrival.

There’s a simple lesson to this story (to quote the Mishna): “don’t judge a wine by it’s bottle”. It’s easy to be enticed by slick packaging; the shiny veneer, the classy bottle, and the exotic name can beguile us into rash decisions. Indeed, this classic moral relates well to our story. However, it has a uniquely contemporary dimension as well.

We are an image driven society. Frankly, no one cares what the wine tastes like anymore; we’re only interested in the bottle. Our identities are now based on the external and superficial. That’s why what your shoes do for your image is more important than what they do for your feet (hence, the invention of stiletto heels). And it’s why people go to tanning salons, why people who drive 100 kmh buy sportscars, and it’s why people who would never eat “Jewish” food will serve that famous French entree, chicken cordon bleu. Today, image is more important than reality.

Our infatuation with image is destructive. It is a form of stupidity, which, (to paraphrase Maimonides) is the petri dish of evil. This obsession turns us into superstitious consumers, buying only items that have the blessings of the fashion Gods. Because of it, we forget about the comfort of loose sweatshirts and sensible shoes, we ignore our health in search of the perfect tan, and refuse to try great, but untrendy, food. We fail to truly experience life while we’re chasing an illusion. In the end, we’re left clutching an empty bottle, never having enjoyed the wine inside.

We ate some chicken cordon bleu the other night, and it was quite enjoyable. Not because it conjured images of French chef , but simply because it tasted good. Or, as Shakespeare might have put it, “chicken and pastrami by any other name, still tastes as sweet as chicken and pastrami”.

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